Art Criticism: Modifying the Formalist Approach

By Prater, Michael | Art Education, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Art Criticism: Modifying the Formalist Approach


Prater, Michael, Art Education


Art criticism is an exciting and empowering discipline of art. When atudents critique artworks they gain the tools needed to meaningfully discuss art with others.

The formalist model of art criticism, introduced by Feldman (1967), is a favorite among art educators due to its simplicity (only four phases: describe, analyze, interpret, judge) and clear objectives. Its analytical phases and judging criteria are easy for students to remember, making it easy for them to use on their own.

Feldman's art criticism model is a standard in art education. With minor modifications Mittler (2000) uses it in his Art In Focus textbook series (2000). One can find Feldman's model in the art criticism section of other art education texts (Herberholz & Herberholz, 1998; Hobbs & Rush, 1997; Hurwitz & Day, 2001; Linderman, 1997). For art educators, Feldman's method is like a carpenter's favorite hammer: comfortable to use and effective in what it does.

But a hammer is not always the right tool for the job. The Feldman model is essentially formalist, meaning it relies upon a set body of rules or criteria that all artworks are compared to. This makes the model problematic when the rules and criteria do not relate easily to the artwork examined. This article proposes a few modifications to the standard formalist model that make it easier to use with a wider range of artworks.

Description of the Feldman Model

The method consists of phases in which the learner examines specific aspects of an artwork. Each phase asks the viewer to regard an artwork from different points of view, specifically different types of artistic qualities (subject matter, elements, principles, and emotions). The first three of the four phases involve cataloging and summarizing these qualities. In the final phase, the learner draws conclusions about the artwork based on the information collected, comparing the work to three categories of art to determine its success.

These categories are key concepts of the method, as they are the criteria used to finally judge an artwork's success. They are often referred to as Aesthetic Theories or the Theories of Art. They are:

Imitationalism: Art in which the artist is trying to accurately imitate a subject.

Emotionalism: Art in which the artist is trying to express emotions, moods or ideas.

Formalism: Art in which the artist is focused on the abstract qualities of the composition.

The phases of the Feldman method are as follows:

Phase 1-Describe: The learner records relevant information such as the title and artist. Then the artwork is described in terms of what is seen in it (i.e. its subject matter, what's going on, and the elements of art, such as color, line, and shape.)

Phase 2-Analyze: The learner analyzes what principles of design or compositional ideas are evident. This often focuses on how the principles of art, such as balance, emphasis, harmony, variety, movement, and proportion, are evident in the work.

Phase 3-Interpret: The learner interprets the emotions, moods, symbols, and ideas that are visible in the artwork.

Phase 4-Judge: The learner decides what type of art is being examined by comparing it to the Theories of Art. Once the type of art is determined, students decide how effectively the artwork compares to the criteria for artwork in that aesthetic theory, literally judging the success or quality of the art object.

The Weaknesses of a Formalist Approach

The Feldman/Mittler method is concerned only with the intrinsic or visible aspects of artworks. It does not require any external information, or facts about the artwork that cannot be viewed in the artwork itself. In this manner the method can be described as a Formalist approach, in that understanding the visual elements of an artwork will provide the viewer with an understanding of the artwork's meaning.

The strength of this approach is that prior learning is not required, allowing everyone to discuss an artwork.

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